“Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, is a doctrine that grew out of a 2001 report by the Canadian-established International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). Unanimously endorsed as a general principle by the UN General Assembly four years later, R2P carries a hefty moral (though not legal) weight. The doctrine holds that it is the responsibility of nation states to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and that if they prove unwilling or unable to do so, responsibility falls on the international community. As a last resort, this responsibility may take the form of military intervention.
What’s the difference between that and humanitarian intervention?
The concept of humanitarian intervention is older and less well-defined. While some R2P advocates prefer not to use the language of humanitarian intervention, we may think of R2P as the latest attempt to spell out and operationalize this older concept, specifically by switching the focus from the rights of self-appointed “global policemen” to the responsibilities of the international community as a whole.
Is R2P simply a dressed-up form of imperialism?
There are many hawks and warmongers around the world who seek to apply the doctrine in this way. But if they did not have R2P, surely that wouldn’t stop them from finding some other pretext for endless war. I am inclined to think of the motives behind R2P as being mostly noble, at least in the abstract. After all, it is hard to imagine that there is simply no such thing as a crime so heinous as to justify military intervention. Truly just wars may be the exception rather than the rule, but a stance of total pacifism is a bit absolutist for my taste.
So then R2P is a good thing?
Again, not quite. While considerably more fleshed out than past notions of humanitarian intervention, R2P still contains far too many abstractions and ambiguities to prevent abuse by militarists with ulterior motives.
Where does Syria fit in all this?
With a civil war raging that is estimated already to have killed 100,000 and displaced millions, and with allegations that large amounts of chemical weapons were used in an assault outside of Damascus last month, many Western politicians and journalists have advocated an attack on Syria on R2P grounds. As former Canadian Justice minister Irwin Cotler put it, “if mass atrocities in Syria are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P.”
Well, is he right? Is the world required by R2P to intervene militarily in Syria?
No. For all its flaws, the R2P doctrine embraces the norm of non-intervention as a starting point and places the burden of proof on those who seek to break it. The following six criteria (borrowed from traditional Just War theory) must be met to allow military action: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects.
Surely putting a halt to the unspeakable violence destroying the people of Syria must be a just cause, right?
Perhaps so. But what of the other criteria? While it is not always obvious how to interpret R2P’s vague language; and while R2P’s standards for permitting intervention are, if anything, not stringent enough; it would be a stretch to believe that the case for war with Syria clears all six of the above thresholds.
Take “reasonable prospects.” This criterion requires a military action to have a good chance of bringing about a desirable outcome. With the notoriously unsavoury elements who make up large parts of the divided Syrian rebel forces, this may not be a realistic goal. What if the rebels continue, or even intensify, sectarian violence once they form government? What if, as some accounts allege, rebel factions were actually the ones responsible for last month’s suspected chemical attack, instead of the regime? What if the expected American bombardment of Syria drags other countries of the region into the war as well?
Then there is “right authority.” The original ICISS report on R2P requires any military intervention to be carried out under the auspices of the UN Security Council or, failing that, the UN General Assembly or, failing that, a regional organization (such as the Arab League) “acting within its defined boundaries.” The subsequent General Assembly endorsement of the principle restricted authorizing capability to just the Security Council, in line with established international law. In the atmosphere of pre-war sabre-rattling presently underway, the United States has not indicated that it will seek permission to attack Syria from any international body.
Okay, so no war. What should we do about Syria, then?
There are no easy answers to this question. A best-case scenario would be that the current threat of military intervention, unjustified though it is, might prompt a greater openness to diplomacy and compromise on the part of the Syrian regime. Far more likely, however, is that the civil war will just drag on. It brings no pleasure to admit this, but readily available solutions to the crisis in Syria do not present themselves through either intervention or non-intervention. In scenarios like this, the Hippocratic principle of “first, do no harm,” cited with approval in the original R2P report, must guide the actions of the international community. Right now, we need to focus our efforts on diplomacy and humanitarian aid instead of war, and hope for a breakthrough.